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Rosh Hashanah 5775 Morning

"Rosh Hashanah 5775 – Can We Talk?"

By Rabbi James Gibson
Rosh Hashana Morning

RH I – 5775

“Can We Talk?” September 25, 2014

My parents, Lois and Larry, decided to make their move a little more than 60 years ago. They were living in lower Manhattan in a cramped, rent-controlled apartment. Though my Dad worked in the city, my parents yearned to get out of Manhattan and grab their tiny piece of the American dream.

The found it across the river in New Jersey in the little town of Demarest. Only a handful of Jews joined them. It made the Christian residents uneasy. Many of you have heard me joke that my street, Robin Road, was the soul of diversity: There were Italian Catholics, Irish Catholics and German Catholics.

My parents tried hard to make friends with their neighbors and fit in. They gave their five children the most Episcopalian names you could imagine: Stuart David, Richard Lee, James Alan, Mark Irvin and Jessica Ann. We would be called by American names, not Yiddish or Hebrew ones.

But we did not shed our Judaism. On the contrary, my parents helped establish Temple Sinai in Tenafly, a neighboring town. We took our Judaism seriously at home and at the synagogue. My parents’ plan: Jewish at home and shul. American at work and school.

So we grew up good Americans, proud Americans. And we were good Jews, proud Jews. Like so many of us from the 50’s and 60’s, we balanced faith and country better than a circus performer.

And life was good. And the Jewish community thrived. And all was fine. We succeeded in becoming equally Jews and Americans. Right? Maybe? Maybe not.

According to every study, we have succeeded wildly in our project of becoming Americans. Many of us are financially successful. These days real social barriers against Jews are harder to find than parking spaces in Oakland.

Unlike our grandparents and many of our parents, none of us fear prejudice when we tell people we are Jewish. Sure, there are some tiny pockets of anti-Semitism in rural areas and up in Idaho. But they hardly affect us. According to Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, we are not only accepted as Americans, but admired.

Now, about the Jewish part. As the late Joan Rivers would say when she wanted to get down to cases: Can we talk?

According last year’s Pew Study of American Jews we have not maintained our religious identities nearly as well. Many have turned their backs on faith and community even as they have been accepted as Americans. The number of Jews is going down. The number of committed Reform and Conservative Jews is going down even faster, especially among our young.

You might be surprised to learn that the fastest growing segment of the American Jewish population is the Orthodox, especially the Charedi, or ultra-Orthodox. There are more Chabad Houses in Pittsburgh than Reform synagogues.

Many Orthodox and Charedi rabbis no longer bother with Reform rabbis. If you ask them, they will say that they are, of course, concerned about every Jew. But since Reform Judaism is going to be extinct in a generation, why bother? The few remaining non-Orthodox Jews will come back to them. They say, all they have to do is wait.

They will say Kaddish for us. Rabbi Norman Lamm, former head of Yeshiva University, declared it publicly just a few years ago. He said it makes him very sad, but he knows in his heart that we are goners.

(make sound. . .)

Now before we just laugh this off, can we talk?

The Pew Study actually supports Rabbi Lamm. It reports that while 87% of Orthodox say that being Jewish is “very important” to them, only 43% of Reform Jews feel the same way. The study says that 42% of all American Jews believe that having a sense of humor is an “essential” characteristic of Jewish identity while only 28% believe that belonging to the Jewish community is essential. 42-28 – That’s a two touchdown margin for humor over community!

But just who are we without community? Individual Jews? Bagel eaters? Hava Nagilah singers? What binds us together? Anything? Can we talk?

One could argue, of course, that living an ethical life is the essential part of Jewish identity. Seventy-two percent of American Jews believe this. But where are one’s Jewish ethics learned? At home? Partly. But the synagogue is where we teach these lessons as Torah and practice rituals to ground them in Jewish tradition.

Take the following examples: Empathy for the stranger? It is explicitly mentioned 36 times in the Torah. Standing up for what is right? Abraham takes on God for the sake of innocent bystanders. Tolerance for immigrants? It is the essence of the book of Ruth. Most Jews learn these stories here, in the synagogue, not through personal study. Moreover, it is here where these values are taught as ethical norms for all Jews.

Without vibrant synagogues, even our ethics will fragment. Within a generation they will have no tie to Torah, the foundation of Jewish legitimacy. Our ethics will not have any connection to our heritage.

The bottom line? If present trends continue, maybe Rabbi Lamm will prove correct. Those who wish to remain actively Jewish will become Orthodox. Those who don’t, well, tough luck.

What can we do? We can ignore the Pew Study. We can serve the Jewish women, men and children who enter our doors and to heck with the trends. We can buckle down and become the most committed congregation in our movement. But one vibrant congregation, even several, are not going to blunt the trend toward less and less identification with Judaism. Being American will, in the end, completely overshadow our Jewish heart and mind.

What can we do? Rosh Hashana is the holiday of the shofar. It is our wake-up call, designed to shock and shake us out of lethargy. This whole holiday is designed to smack us upside the head so we’ll get to work.

So, let’s take the question seriously. What is the answer to reviving the Jewish part of our American-Jewish identity?

More social action programs? We will never diminish our commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world. But we have to ask ourselves honestly: Will the meals we serve to the poor, the nails we pound for affordable housing, the pollution we clean, the wages we raise – will these, by themselves, hold us to our roots, our faith, our community?

Not on their own, I fear. Rabbi Symons does a wonderful job of connecting the work of our hands to our core Jewish values. But for some, social justice is not uniquely Jewish, it is universal. If so, doing good for its own sake may not increase our connection to Jewish values or faith.

How about Israel? Can Israel save liberal American Judaism? Some think so. More than 400,000 Jewish youth from ages 18-26 have taken part in the Birthright program. This is a free 10 day trip with other youth of similar age and interest. Many come back with a new appreciation for Israel. But studies show a marked drop off in interest and connection with Israel each month that goes by that participants come home.

I think Israel is an essential part of our Jewish identity, having lived there and visited more than 20 times. Full disclosure: I’m leading a Temple trip this winter and would love you to come! But the Israel advocacy that inspires me may make you recoil. Just read yesterday’s NYT about the minefield rabbi’s face in speaking about Israel from the pulpit (I’ll talk about it on Kol Nidre…)!

And though AIPAC, J-Street and ZOA are vitally involved with the blazing Israel issues of today, lobbying alone does not make for enduring Jewish connection tomorrow.

How about God? For many Jews spirituality has become a goal in and of itself. Finding God through mediation and silence is a powerful and a blessing for the soul. But spirituality without Jewish practice to support it may not be sufficient to hold on to our Jewish distinctiveness.

So what can we do? Maybe what might work is a little closer than we realize. Maybe an answer is to reclaim Shabbat. I believe that together, Shabbat at home and Shabbat at shul offer our best hope to affirm and nourish Jewish identity now and for the future.

Because despite our best efforts, memory of the Holocaust is bound to fade.

Because social justice issues will come and go.

Because Israel needs us to be Americans committed to our Judaism as much, if not more, than it needs us as lobbyists in DC.

Because personal spirituality is enriching but is about the individual, not the Jewish people. Because Jewish humor may not be that funny 20 years from now.

But Shabbat will be Shabbat, the quintessential Jewish practice. Shabbat is the most singular contribution Judaism has made to world religion. Law codes older than the Torah teach social values similar to ours. Believing in one God is not unique to Judaism.

The Torah, in offering us Shabbat, gave the world something completely new. It mystified the ancient world. Those who enslaved us were amazed that Jewish slaves produced more in six days that those who were made to work seven.

One Roman emperor, after visiting a Jewish home for Shabbat dinner, begged for the magic spice that made that Friday night meal so spectacular. When he was told that the spice was called Shabbat, he ordered his servants to search all his lands to find where it was grown. He was disappointed to discover that it is the spice of Shabbat time, observed in joy and love that gave the food its marvelous taste.

The modern Jewish thinker Asher Ginsburg, also known as Achad Ha-Am, famously wrote, “More than Israel has kept Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept Israel.”

Now Shabbat may not be able to reverse the trends of the Pew Study. But it can reinforce and encourage everything about our Jewish identity.

Shabbat literally links Jews across continents and across time itself. Every time we light candles for Shabbat we link ourselves to the millions of Jews who have done so before us, and millions of other Jews celebrating Shabbat across the globe. It is something we can do, both here at Sinai and at home. We can do this for ourselves now and possibly, to ensure our Jewish future.

But what if you don’t like Shabbat? Frankly, for so many of us, the question is not if we like Shabbat, rather do we have enough experience to make a judgment at all?

To say, I didn’t like Shabbat services when I was a kid begs the question. Connection at a synagogue, much less finding God, requires more than an openness of heart. It demands a commitment to some form of practice. One does not play Mozart without practicing scales. One does not dance without learning steps and rehearsing them. One does not paint without learning brushstrokes and wiping off a lot of paint to fix mistakes.

Now, you could always say it is too late for you. But this is the option of despair. We still have the power to choose our present and our future and that is what Rosh Hashana is all about.

This year, 5775, we are declaring to be The Year of Shabbat. We are hoping to involve you in such rich, varied experiences that Shabbat will become a focal point in your lives. We are hoping that it will help put the Jewish back in our American-Jewish identities.

Many of you who have said, over the years, that Shabbat service times do not match how you live your lives. So we are shaking things up this year.

Our new schedule for this year varies service times to meet your needs. All you have to do to know when services are is remember a number: 7-6-7-8.

This number tells you when we celebrate Shabbat every week during the month. The first Shabbat of the month we celebrate with our Temple Sinai Band. We call it “Mostly Musical Shabbat.” We gather at SEVEN. Services are about an hour. We sing, we dance, we tell stories. We fulfill the Torah’s teaching to celebrate, to experience oneg, enjoyment in just being, not doing. Being together. Being Jewish. Being joyful with our people and with God. Your children and grandchildren are my Shabbat dance partners! You are welcome to join the dance yourselves.

The second Shabbat of the month we gather at SIX. For those coming from the office or bringing kids from home, we offer nibbles and drinks – a Pre-Oneg before we get started. Again, the service is about an hour and will include a brief teaching from me.

After this service we encourage you to go home and celebrate Shabbat with family and friends. I am indebted to Cathy Droz, Judy Mahan and volunteers from the Neshama Center for Jewish Spirituality as well as our Temple Sinai staff for making this simple idea a concrete reality we call Shabbat Tables.

The idea is simple. Services are early enough to eat afterwards. If you have young kids, you don’t even have to come to services. All you have to do is have Shabbat dinner at home.

We want you to have Shabbat dinner to give your families, and especially your children, the enduring memories as they grow up of what Shabbat looks like, what it feels like and tastes like. And if hosting such a dinner is beyond your comfort zone, you can be a guest at someone else’s home. We will link you up to a host family willing and eager to celebrate Shabbat with you! It will be a blessing you will not regret!

Here’s how it works: Sign up online on the Temple Sinai website to be a host or a guest. Or call Judy Mahan in the Temple office. That evening, sit down at your table for Shabbat with family and guests, but without devices or distractions. Say the blessing for candles after you light them. Recite the blessing for wine or grape juice, the Kiddush. Say the blessing over a meal, the Motzi (we do it holding hands in my house). Eat food, a copious amount of food if you want. Don’t have it in you to prepare a feast? Pizza will do. So will hamburgers.

Shabbat is not the chicken dinner. Shabbat is you sitting down and celebrating it. After your

meal, pick up a device and take pictures of everyone there. Hopefully, you’ll all be smiling! And then send the pictures you take to Judy Mahan at ¬

This month a dozen Temple Sinai homes hosted others for our first Shabbat Tables celebration. For October, I am hoping for 50. So simple, yet so powerful. Your children and grandchildren will remember these Shabbat dinners you either host or take them to as core Jewish experiences. You will plant in them a memory they might want to replicate when they have homes of their own. Shabbat Tables – it’s what’s for dinner! Try it!

The third Shabbat of the month there is a Family Service at SEVEN. For those with very small children, Tot Shabbat is at 5:30. For those who want someone else to do the cooking, Shabbat dinner is at 6:00 PM, cooked in our kitchen, hot, delicious and ready to eat!

At Seven, Rabbi Symons, Sara Stock Mayo, backed by Carol and Tom Congedo offer a truly engaging family service. It includes monthly birthday blessings, with Israeli chocolates for the birthday kids, young and old. There are songs and stories galore, and a lovely oneg afterwards. Many congregants find this such an accessible service, so warm and inclusive that they love it and take part every month!

We celebrate the fourth Shabbat of the month at EIGHT. Many in our Temple Sinai family just can’t get away from work for an earlier service. Some look for a more adult tone. This service offers a later time and a more mature flavor. Our Intergenerational Choir will be singing every month, beautiful, choral music, sung from their hearts. We will have a Torah reading. I or a guest speaker will give a Torah message. And, of course, there will be an lovely oneg afterwards.

So, there it is: 7-6-7-8. Please repeat after me. 7-6-7-8. When you can’t find your Doorways program guide or your wi-fi is down, all you have to do is remember this one number: 7-6-7-8 and you will know when services start.

We will make extra efforts this fall to make sure that you know when services are if you are saying Kaddish for a loved one. And that fifth Shabbat, which occurs a couple times a year? We’re going to gather at SIX. This will happen in October and May this year.

If I thought for one moment that this was only a ploy to get more bodies in this room, I would abandon the whole project. I don’t want your attendance, I want your smiles and your joy. I want you to find your own Jewish voice. Your Shabbat voice. And if we are successful, maybe when the Pew study comes around again in ten years you will be able to report that you are connected to your people and faith by more than a good Jewish joke.

I’d like to end with a poem that describes what I hope for you for this year as you engage in Shabbat prayer, talk and food.

“Shabbat Dinner” by Mickey Chalfin

after some degree of candle lighting wine, and challah the many blessings

led to pasta and eggplant and my questions

about god and man

about life, history, and time we struggled with answers almost getting there


when dessert arrived

our cosmic consciousness focused on the chocolates the sponge cake, and on the chocolates again

Ahhh. What a blessing! This year, a Shabbat of shalom, rich, full, whole for you. For you, and us all. And over coffee and dessert, we will say to each other, more gently than Joan Rivers ever did, Can we talk? What a blessing! What a blessing!

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784